Crisis talks in bid to keep railway open

Tasmania's tourism industry will hold crisis talks today in a bid to save one of the state's premier attractions.

Federal Group announced yesterday the West Coast's 35-kilometre heritage railway will close on April 30 unless another operator can be found.

The company blamed diving visitor numbers, which have halved over the past decade, as well as rising maintenance costs and damage caused by extreme weather.

The Tourism Industry Council Tasmania will hold a special board meeting today about the failed venture. 

Chairman Simon Currant said the public money that had been invested in the railway should not be lost.

``The issue now is what happens to this asset that is owned by the Tasmanian people and was built by the Tasmanian and Australian governments,'' Mr Currant said.

The state and federal governments spent $38 million to help set up the Abt railway, and the state-owned track, trains and stations were valued at $45 million three years ago.

West Coast Mayor Darryl Gerrity is calling for state-owned TasRail to take over management and spend millions on repairs.

He said a myriad of other businesses relied on the railway tourists, so it must not close permanently.

``You're talking about a tourism icon that's known around the world,'' he said.

``The carriages, the locomotives and the train stations are all in tip-top shape.''

However, both the state Liberal and Greens parties are against the cash-strapped government taking over operations.

Infrastructure Minister David O'Byrne said $15-20 million must be spent over the next five years on upgrading the infrastructure and the state could not foot that bill on its own.

``I've asked (my department) to fully investigate the situation . . . so we can make decisions about the business and asset evaluation,'' Mr O'Byrne said.

``The ideal scenario would be for the West Coast Wilderness Railway to continue operating effectively under a different owner.''

Braddon MHR Sid Sidebottom said he had briefed the federal tourism, infrastructure and regional development ministers on the issue.

However, Mr Sidebottom said it was up to the Tasmanian Government to decide what to do with state-owned assets.

``If the state has a strategy or suggestions for us to look at then of course I want to know about them, but those decisions need to be made by the Tasmanian community and the Tasmanian Government,'' he said.

Federal Group's Daniel Hanna said the company commissioned an expert engineering report last year that confirmed expensive repairs were required. A copy of the report was provided to the government, which then agreed to end the 20-year operating lease halfway through.

``We've been in discussions in recent weeks with the hope there would be a transition to a new operator,'' Mr Hanna said.

``But at this stage it doesn't look like that's going to happen.''

Mr Hanna said alternative jobs would be found, where possible, for 48 staff who will lose their jobs on April 30.


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